Nuclear Iran would not spark a Middle East arms race
Fears that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East are not supported by the historical record or a careful examination of the motivations and strategic interests of potential proliferants (ex. Saudia Arabia, Turkey).
The concern about Saudi proliferation stems from fears that the kingdom would be forced to act if both Iran and Israel possessed a nuclear arsenal. "We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," an unnamed Saudi official declared to the Guardian on the sidelines of a meeting between Prince Turki al Faisal and NATO officials in June 2011. "It's as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit." Yet given the fact that the Saudis have very little nuclear infrastructure to speak of, this kind of statement is little more than posturing designed to force the U.S. hand on Iran. Unlike similar warnings by Israel, which has the capacity to follow through on its threat to attack Iran's nuclear sites, Riyadh's rhetoric about acquiring nuclear weapons is empty. What is amazing is how many people take the Saudis seriously. If Khilewi had been telling the truth, now would seem like a good time for the Riyadh to give Tehran a look at what the royal family has been hiding in the palace basement all these years -- but so far, we have only heard crickets.
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Numerous commentators and officials have warned that if Iran defies the international community and develops nuclear weapons, it could fatally undermine the NPT. First, as the National Intelligence Council noted in December of 2012, Iranian nuclear acquisition “could trigger an arms race in the Middle East, undermining the nonpro- liferation regime.”79 Many fear that Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as its principal threat and rival for regional influence, would quickly follow Iran into the nuclear club (perhaps by acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan) and that Turkey, Egypt and possibly other Middle Eastern states would not be far behind.80
Second, the failure to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons could undermine international respect for the NPT and gut the credibility of U.S. counterproliferation efforts. The United Nations (U.N.) Security Council has passed six resolu- tions since 2006 demanding that Iran comply with its NPT obligations. Three successive American administrations have also described Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition as “unacceptable,” pledging to do whatever it takes to stop Iran before it gets the bomb. If Iran nevertheless succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, other states may conclude that the NPT is toothless and that Washington, in particular, lacks the capability and the will to enforce member states’ nonproliferation obligations.81
Finally, a nuclear-armed Tehran could itself become a supplier of proliferation materials. Even if Iran does not give operational nuclear weapons to allied states or non-state actors, it might consider providing others with sensitive nuclear assistance, such as centrifuge components or warhead designs. In this way, Tehran could pass sensitive technology to Hezbollah or help jumpstart nuclear programs in allied countries such as Sudan or Venezuela, much as Pakistan’s AQ Khan network allegedly facilitated proliferation efforts in Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea.82
What about Saudi Arabia, then, the Sunni power that is on the tip of most analysts' tongues when it comes to Shiite Iran getting the bomb? Saudi Arabia has the cash to make large-scale investments in nuclear technology. Indeed, the only factor that makes warnings about Saudi proliferation -- such as that delivered by former Ambassador the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal last year -- even remotely credible is the resources the Saudis can muster to buy a nuclear program. Yet, while Riyadh can outfit itself with nuclear facilities with ease, it does not have the capacity to manage them. Mohamed Khilewi, a former Saudi diplomat, claims that the kingdom has been developing a nuclear arsenal to counter Israel since the mid-1970s -- but he offers no substantiated evidence to support these claims.
In fact, the country has no nuclear facilities and no scientific infrastructure to support them. It's possible that Saudi Arabia could import Pakistanis to do the work for them. But while Saudis feel comfortable with Pakistanis piloting some of their warplanes and joining their ground forces, setting up a nuclear program subcontracted with Pakistani know-how -- or even acquiring a nuclear device directly from Islamabad -- poses a range of political risks for the House of Saud. No doubt there would be considerable international opprobrium. Certainly Washington, which implicitly extends its nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia, would have a jaundiced view of a nuclear deal between Riyadh and Islamabad. Moreover, it's one thing to hand the keys to an F-15 over to a foreigner, but letting them run your nuclear program is another matter altogether.
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No such precedent exists. In 70 years of nuclear history, there is not a single case of proliferation of nuclear weapons caused by a safeguarded enrichment program which is what Iran will have after an agreement. There have been 10 nuclear weapons states.24 Some weapons programs began in response to another country’s nuclear weapons program, others to actual nuclear tests, but none to a safeguarded enrichment program. Governments tend to be reactive by nature, not proactive—and nuclear weapons are not a small undertaking. Non-nuclear weapons states that have safeguarded enrichment programs, such as Japan and Brazil, have not caused neighboring countries to initiate nuclear weapons programs.
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This suggests that, here too, responses to the challenge posed by a nuclear-capable Iran should be considered in measured rather than apocalyptic terms. While a nuclear- capable Iran would undoubtedly cause significant regional disquiet, the idea that an inevitable proliferation cascade would result is not certain. Moreover, the metaphor of a cascade presumes a rapid reaction. In reality, any response would take a long time to play out (probably decades), and there would be ample time to change course. While there may be rhetorical flourishes toward the need for weapons on the part of states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others, the need to contain a rapid proliferation cascade across the Middle East should, at least for some years, be a less than immediate issue in US and Israeli thinking about how to respond to a nuclear Iran.67
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Another question that will confront those trying to deter a future nuclear-capable Iran will be the consequences of Iran’s status on regional proliferation. As noted previously, there is a significant line of thinking that Iran’s actions will result in a proliferation ‘‘cascade’’ across the Middle East.62 A senior member of the Saudi Royal Family has stated that the Kingdom will be forced to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.63 How real is this fear? This is a serious question. If US deterrence policy toward Iran is conditioned to some extent by the objective of demonstrating that other regional states do not need to ‘‘go nuclear’’ to deal with Iran, then this will have real consequences for US diplomacy and for its military posture in the Middle East and for the policies of several regional countries.64 Recent scholarship on proliferation is increasingly making the point that assumptions about reactive proliferation cascades are overplayed. Ever since President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assertion that 'within a decade' there would be fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five nuclear weapons states, proliferation fears have constantly overestimated the danger of such cascades.65 In fact, the reality is that proliferation is not the norm but the exception in terms of international behavior. Even when confronted with serious challenges, including nuclear-armed regional rivals, most states find other ways to assure their security.66
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Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and so far, fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. Properly defined, the term “proliferation” means a rapid and uncontrolled spread. Nothing like that has occurred; in fact, since 1970, there has been a marked slowdown in the emergence of nuclear states. There is no reason to expect that this pattern will change now. Should Iran become the second Middle Eastern nuclear power since 1945, it would hardly signal the start of a landslide. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. Its nuclear arms were a much bigger threat to the Arab world than Iran’s program is today. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.
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Assumption # 1: A nuclear-armed Iran will lead to regional proliferation.
While it is possible that a nuclear-armed Iran could spur other regional countries to acquire nuclear weapons of their own, policymakers should not simply assume this will be the case. Recent analysis by the Center for New American Security challenges “conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will spark region-wide proliferation,” observes that historical cases of reactive proliferation are “exceedingly rare,” and ultimately concludes that “neither Egypt nor Turkey, [nor Saudi Arabia] is likely to respond . . . by pursuing the bomb.”22 A recent study from the War Studies Department of King’s College London draws similar conclusions noting Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia “have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route.”23 Moreover, there is ample historical evidence both inside and outside the Middle East that one nation’s possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily lead to further proliferation among presumed competitors. For instance, China conducted its first nuclear weapons tests in 1964 and neither Japan nor South Korea have yet opted to “go-nuclear” although both countries certainly have long possessed the technical capability to do so. Ironically, the most powerful incentive for nuclear proliferation among Arab nations has been Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s. Nevertheless, despite several Arab-Israeli wars, neither Iran nor any Arab state has developed nuclear weapons in the subsequent 50 years. Finally, there are any number of deliberate actions US policymakers could take to minimize prospects for further regional proliferation including providing friendly militaries with capable defen- sive missile systems and perhaps even extending America’s nuclear umbrella to threatened allies.
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Fears of a tipping point were especially acute in the aftermath of China’s 1964 detonation of an atomic bomb: it was predicted that India, Indonesia, and Japan might follow, with consequences worldwide, as “Israel, Sweden, Germany, and other potential nuclear countries far from China and India would be affected by proliferation in Asia.”40 A U.S. government document identiaed “at least eleven nations (India, Japan, Israel, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Canada, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania, and Yugoslavia)” with the capacity to go nuclear, a number that would soon “grow substantially” to include “South Africa, the United Arab Republic, Spain, Brazil and Mexico.”41 A top-secret, blue-ribbon committee established to craft the U.S. response con- tended that “the  Chinese nuclear explosion has increased the urgency and complexity of this problem by creating strong pressures to develop inde- pendent nuclear forces, which, in turn, could strongly inouence the plans of other potential nuclear powers.”42
These predictions were largely wrong. In 1985 the National Intelligence Council noted that for “almost thirty years the Intelligence Community has been writing about which nations might next get the bomb.” All of these esti- mates based their largely pessimistic and ultimately incorrect estimates on fac- tors such as the increased “access to assile materials,” improved technical capabilities in countries, the likelihood of “chain reactions,” or a “scramble” to proliferation when “even one additional state demonstrates a nuclear capa- bility.” The 1985 report goes on, “The most striking characteristic of the present-day nuclear proliferation scene is that, despite the alarms rung by past Estimates, no additional overt proliferation of nuclear weapons has actually occurred since China tested its bomb in 1964.” Although “some proliferation of nuclear explosive capabilities and other major proliferation-related develop- ments have taken place in the past two decades,” they did not have “the damaging, systemwide impacts that the Intelligence community generally an- ticipated they would.”43
"Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War
." International Security
. Vol. 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/10): 7-37. [ More (6 quotes) ]
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One can also argue that an Iranian bomb could unravel the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The causes of a Saudi or Turkish bomb and the impact of this on the nuclear nonproliferation regime are separate questions that I cannot fully address here. However, the literature on the causes of nuclear proliferation suggests that whether an Iranian bomb would cause regional proliferation is far from clear. Policy makers have worried about this ever since Pres. Kennedy worried about 40 nuclear powers in the 1960s, but well into the twenty-first century, the number of nuclear powers remains below 10.54 For example, while Saudi policy makers have often said they would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so, much of this is designed to pressure the United States to prevent Iran from developing the bomb.55 The United States has effectively used a combination of carrots and sticks to prevent many states from developing nuclear weapons, and it is not clear that an Iranian bomb would stop this trend.56 Finally, one can argue that an Iranian bomb would undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Again, I cannot fully address that issue here, but the effect of the nuclear nonproliferation regime on states’ decisions to develop nuclear weapons is contested.57 Moreover, it is a stretch to assume that an Iranian bomb would have much effect on distant states’ nuclear decisions. An Iranian bomb may well pose challenges to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime that are as similar and surmountable as those posed by the other nuclear powers.
The author dismisses the argument that a nuclear Iran would lead to a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, arguing that "[t]his argument overlooks the international and domestic factors that point to the fact that the nuclear domino rarely falls."
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The author dismisses recent threats from Gulf states that they would pursue nuclear weapons if the Iran deal passes, arguing that "one thing we do not need to worry about is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. There is scant evidence that proliferation begets proliferation."
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The authors review the rationales and disincentives for each state that might pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran develops one, and conclude that "a close analysis of probable scenarios suggests that a final Iranian nuclear agreement is unlikely to trigger a regional nuclear weapons cascade."
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The authors challenge the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear capability would compel Turkey to follow suit.
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